In the world of film, 2008 will be remembered as the year in which the industry proved it could thrive even when the economy did not. Never before were there so many films that grossed over $200 million (six) at the box office, with three of them going past $300 million, one of them becoming the second highest-grossing feature of all time. Thankfully that film, The Dark Knight, was no empty pirate feature, but the year’s best movie. Blockbusters continued to dominate in the summer months as studios still subscribed to their make or break strategy, while the year’s more thoughtful features were saved for the later months. And along the way, as always, there were some wonderful gems that were under-viewed and some awful disappointments that should never have seen the light of day. What follows is one humble critic’s take on the best and worst the cinematic world had to offer in 2008.
The best of 2008
The Dark Knight~ There wasn’t an American film made this year that was as ambitious as this or one that examined more effectively what we’ve become as a nation since 9/11. Gotham City is our country, Batman is our protector and he’s forced to look at the effect of his fight on crime and change his methods once chaos comes to town in the person of the Joker. Without question, Heath Ledger’s performance as the pop icon villain was mesmerizing, but what stays with you is the tragedy that befalls the film’s hero, who’s forced to compromise his beliefs and become something he never intended to be in the face of inexplicable tragedy. The Dark Knight will continue to resonate long after 2008, a statement few films made this year can claim.
The Visitor~ Another film connected to 9/11, this examination of a university professor
(Richard Jenkins) who tries to save an illegal immigrant from being deported
shined a light on our country’s inhumane treatment of detainees and the callous approach to their humanity.
Moving and containing a degree of anger that erupts at the end, this was one of
the most moving and thought-provoking features of the year.
In Bruges~ The best foreign film no one saw, this wry black comedy stars Colin Farrell
and Brendan Gleeson as two hit men who’ve been sent to Belgium by their boss (Ralph Fiennes) for a job. What they don’t realize is that one of the killers will be ordered to kill the other, which
sets up a crisis of conscience for them both where they end up questioning
their own moral codes. Violent, funny and with a great twist ending, this is
the sort of film Quentin Tarantino used to make.
Tropic Thunder~ Sure, Ben Stiller’s comedy which lampooned all things Hollywood was offensive and that was
precisely the point. This war movie parody skewered movie star egos, greedy
execs and vacuous agents while taking pot shots at addle-brained audiences and
the empty entertainments they eat up. Uproariously funny, this film took no
prisoners and kudos must be given for all involved, including Robert Downey
Jr., for putting themselves in the crosshairs.
Man on Wire ~ If you’re a fan of heist films, be sure to see this documentary by James Marsh, as there was no better entry in that genre this year. Using archival footage and recent interviews, the movie recounts the efforts of Philippe Petit and his crew to break into the newly constructed World Trade Center in 1974, string a wire between the towers and pull off one of the most daring high wire walks ever recorded. In the end, the feat is seen not only as an example of daring but an act of consummate beauty.
Frost/Nixon ~ Hey, Gov. Blagojevich, here’s a movie you need to see right away. Ron Howard’s adaptation of the acclaimed play provides a behind-the-scenes look at the famous interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon, giving us an intimate look at each man’s motives. While Frost is seen as an opportunist, Nixon comes off as a proud man who has come to justify his illegal activities, only to realize the error of his ways. As Nixon, Frank Langella actually makes us sympathize with the fallen leader, giving us a man who longed to be at the center of everything but was a perpetual outsider. (Frost/Nixon will open locally in January.)
Milk ~ Director Gus Van Sant’s look at the political career of gay activist Harvey Milk is a moving account of one man’s fight for civil rights for all and the tragedy that results when he meets intolerance to his cause. As Harvey Milk, Sean Penn rediscovers a joy in performing that has been absent in his work for years and seeing his resurrection is a thing to behold. Moving and all too current, this is a film that is, regrettably, as relevant today as when its events occurred. (Milk will open locally in January.)
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days ~ This film from Romania charts the harrowing efforts of one young woman’s efforts to procure an abortion for her friend in a country where this is illegal. The man they find who will perform the procedure takes advantage of them and once the deed is completed, the emotional toll it takes on these two women is experienced by the audience, which comes to share in the horror of their situation. Shocking and at times almost too much to bear, this film forces you to rethink your stance on this controversial issue.
Swing Vote ~ The best American film no one saw this year, this look at our corrupt political system and the hope it still contains at its core was far too timely for audiences to embrace. Too bad, because they missed a great performance from Kevin Costner, as a lovable loser forced to change his life when the fate of the presidential election lands in his lap, and newcomer Madeline Carroll, as his daughter who acts as his conscience. Here’s hoping this one finds new life when it’s released on DVD.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ~ David Fincher’s unique film looks at the age-old theme of living life to its fullest through a different spectrum as its main character is born 80 years old and ages backwards. In the title role, Brad Pitt delivers a moving performance, as does Cate Blanchett as the woman who loves and cares for him, despite his unique predicament. Thought-provoking and moving, this film has a haunting quality to it that’s hard to shake.
The worst of 2008
Pride and Glory ~ Edward Norton and Colin Farrell star as cops in New York awash in corruption.
The biggest crime committed here by director Gavin O’Connor is that he does nothing but foist a collection of clichés on an unsuspecting audience.
Nobel Son ~ This overreaching kidnap caper got bogged down with a story too confusing for its own good and was populated by characters we could care less about. Even with Alan Rickman, Mary Sttenburgen and Danny DeVito, among others on board, this was nothing but dull.
The Day the Earth Stood Still ~ This remake of the Robert Wise classic was flawed, but not from the casting of Keanu Reeves in the lead, nor from the efforts to modernize it as an environmental warning. The fault lies in the script that had enough holes in it to fly countless UFOs through.
Bottle Shock ~ In addition to directing Nobel Son, Randall Miller also made this stinker about small California winemakers trying to crack the European market. Instead of charming, this feature was far too calculated to be believed.
Righteous Kill ~ Al Pacino and Robert De Niro starred as partners on the New York police department trying to solve a series of grisly crimes. If anything, this film proved that the wattage on this pair’s star power has drastically dimmed.
College ~ It never occurred to me that this college sex comedy starring Drake Bell of the TV sitcom “Drake and Josh” would be any good. I simply had no idea it would be so insultingly bad. No higher education or entertainment to be had here.
Four Christmases ~ Reese Whiterspoon and Vince Vaughn go slumming in this ode to family dysfunction during the holiday season. Mindless slapstick and sophomoric humor fill this 88 minutes of your life that you’ll never get back.
The Happening ~ What’s happening here with the latest from director M. Night Shyamalan’s latest? Only more proof that the talent behind The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable was a fluke and that all film cameras should be taken away from him before he sins again.
Wanted ~ Was there a film with more talent on board that was as insulting as this one? Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman are usually sure bets, but this ridiculous tale of assassins in the service of a secret society was far too loud and far too dumb to be believed.
My Best Friend’s Girl ~ Dane Cook, Kate Hudson and Jason Biggs all inched a bit closer to career suicide with this offensive modern take of Cyrano De Bergerac gone wrong. The characters were offensive, their actions revolting and I was left with nothing but the need for a hot shower.